“Oh, no, I quite understand, Twilight,” said Princess Celestia, ruffling her wings nervously.

Twilight Sparkle lifted an eyebrow. “Do you?”

Celestia averted her gaze, to Trixie’s obvious amusement, and added, “I don’t mean to offend. Perhaps I’ve erred? It wouldn’t be the first time, dear Twilight Sparkle, and doubtless won’t be the last. We can fall back upon simpler ways, if you like. I know you have been through so much, and if I…”

“Wait,” said Twilight Sparkle.

Trixie watched, with great satisfaction, as Princess Celestia did just that. She stopped mid-sentence, and peered at Twilight Sparkle with some trepidation but not a word of objection: best of all, with a kind of deference. Not deference as shown to a superior, no, but a respect as between equals. Twilight hadn’t even raised her voice or looked up, but for all that, the Princess waited.

Of course, Twilight was a Princess too… in a sense.

Princess meant Alicorn. It turned out to be a condition one could attain through exceptional service to magic itself, and the alicorns had seen many strange methods of joining their ranks. But until Princess Twilight Sparkle, they had never seen a pony become an alicorn, take on all that power, willingly accept it… and then have it all go terribly wrong.

If not for the sacrifice of Fluttershy, Twilight would have destroyed herself and Celestia and Discord in a fit of jealousy and madness. If Fluttershy had not been already dead and thus unkillable by even an alicorn death-bolt, the events of that day would have been incomparably tragic. As it was, Twilight’s alicorn nature had been stripped from her at a stroke, and she’d reverted to the unicorn form she’d been born with… the form Princess Celestia had patiently raised and educated for years, the form that had driven Celestia to prudery in desperate attempts not to take liberties with the endearing, bookish filly in her charge. She hadn’t thought she swung that way, but the power of a lavender unicorn girl was strangely irresistible.

Celestia had also been occupied trying to sort out her feelings for the alicorn Chaos: once Discord, before that Starswirl the Bearded—her stallion lover thousands of years past. A complicated and tricky relationship to be sure, yet it was Chaos who’d encouraged her to dally with her once-student Twilight in the belief that all the terrible drama had been borne of simple sexual frustration.

Truly, they had been through so much.

Trixie smirked. She’d been through a lot too during Twilight’s alicorn period, but she’d won out quite conclusively. The lavender unicorn of contention was hers, and had wound up as mortal as she was. And one shocking afternoon of restrained royal debauchery and pony-spanking had stripped Twilight of her old worshipful feelings for her mentor, leaving a very shook-up unicorn mare who had a lot of thinking to do.

Trixie liked being with Twilight while she was thinking—or reading—or pretty much any activity, if it came to that. She happily watched Twilight think, and felt an extra twinge of satisfaction to see Princess Celestia remain silent and attentive.

Twilight had retained the title of Princess, because nopony had ever known a Princess to de-alicorn themselves in a fit of violence, and since no final harm had been done by it. But it wasn’t the title that silenced Celestia. It was love… and respect.

Twilight spoke.

“I never said I wanted to go back to our old ways, Princess. I don’t want to turn back time. What I said was, ‘don’t’. Don’t invite me and Trixie to your chambers, don’t make hints, not right now. You’re subtle, but it’s easy to guess what you’re suggesting. I’ve learned so many things I could never have imagined. I like learning things. I feel certain that I would like to learn more…”

Celestia’s eyes lit, but she didn’t speak. Trixie’s amused gaze held her, and then Twilight glanced her direction and she couldn’t speak, for those violet eyes took her breath away.

“I remember, you see,” said Twilight. “I remember what it felt like being an alicorn exploring the fullness of my body. I remember how it felt on that side, and now I’m in Trixie’s horseshoes for a change, getting both sides of it… Do you know what I feel like when you look at me that way? I’m a moth, Princess. We’re both moths, Trixie and I…”

Trixie snorted, fondly. Twilight glanced her way.

“Okay, fine! Just me, then. Trixie’s a, a… blue-arsed fly, and not impressed by your flame…”

“Oh, really?” sniffed Trixie. “Mistress is so complimentary!”

“Would you rather be a red-arsed fly?” threatened Twilight, smirking.

Trixie stuck her tongue out at her beloved, and ceased her sarcasm.

Twilight turned back to her Princess—whose eyes glistened just a little, who trembled faintly—and continued with an odd gentleness. “You must understand. I feel like I’m a moth, and you’re the flame, and that isn’t the way we should be. I understand that Starswirl once felt very similarly, and look what happened there! Princess, you’ve got to give us time. I know I’m mortal, I know compared to you I’ll be gone so quickly… nevertheless!”

Princess Celestia gulped, her heart hammering. Even Trixie’s gaze turned more sympathetic.

“I’m sure we can be with you, in time,” said Twilight. She glanced at Trixie, wryly. “My marefriend is much less impressed with you and isn’t one bit scared of you. We trust you to be responsible and not arc with us, and anyways you’re no adolescent. And I still love you, I always will. But slow down! Doesn’t Chaos keep you busy?”

“Chaos will last,” said Celestia softly. “As will my Order. It is the fugitive that haunts my thoughts.”

Trixie’s eyes bugged out. “A fugitive? Are you going to break out the hoof-cuffs? Can I have some? Eeee!”

Twilight smacked her disobedient rump, with another smirk, both unicorns giggling like schoolfillies. “Behave! She means ephemeral! Like soap-bubbles or mists!”

Then, she glanced up to see her Princess’s eyes shimmering in earnest, and Twilight’s heart went out. She hopped to her hooves, trotted a few steps and strained Celestia to her in an embrace, with no argument from her Trixie. Celestia couldn’t speak for lip-quivering, so Twilight looked her in the eye and did the talking.

“I am NOT a soap-bubble!” she asserted. “You take care of yourself and me and Trixie will work this out, and we’ll find a way to be part of your life. Private life, I mean. Now I know how she felt when I was a crazy alicorn! Take a deep breath. Maybe I should have failed more tests when I was a filly! You’re totally hung up!”

Princess Celestia shivered. “I love you, Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight gave her a sharp look. “Is Chaos keeping you busy? Or is this her little game, pointing you at me?”

At that, Celestia drew herself together. “Twilight! Nopony ‘points’ me, first of all. And yes, Chaos spends time with me. Perhaps that’s part of it. It’s been thousands of years since that side of me found exercise.”

“In what form?” demanded Twilight, shrewdly.

Celestia flushed. “I, ah… several, in fact. All right, many. My darling is ingenious.”

“No no,” said Twilight, while Trixie watched in unconcealed delight. She’d always suspected Big Snobby had a capacity for debauchery, and now she was getting the inside scoop. Twilight pressed further. “I mean, is Chaos using a magic bit and turning male for you… or is she teaching you stuff I should know about?”

Celestia couldn’t answer at first. On the one hoof, the questions were unthinkably intrusive. On the other, the two unicorns whose presence she shared were individuals she longed to bring into her innermost circles, longed to have no secrets from. She gulped. “Chaos… is teaching me to be better with mares. Sometimes. When I permit it. Enticing me, you might say.”

Trixie squeed. “You used to be so stuffy! Trixie knows little Chaos is both cute and clever, but how is she managing that?”

“By turning herself into… into…”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. Her ears laid back. “WHAT are you suggesti…”

“PRINCESS TWILIGHT!” came the voice from outside the Golden Oaks Library door, and all three ponies jumped.

The door swung open, and Applejack barged in. “Beggin’ your pardon, but if you could jes’… oh!”

Close behind her came a trail of little and still littler ponies. Rock Candy followed Applejack attentively, his half-brother Little Dursaa bouncing along beside him. Rainbow Dash trotted alongside Fluttershy, and at the rear of the procession was Northern Spy, pouting and looking sullen… until she looked up and saw who was inside the Library.

A tiny fillyish squee cut through the air, and then a small green form cut through the crowd, jostling Rainbow Dash and knocking Rock Candy to the side in her mad charge. Northern Spy pounced and hugged Princess Celestia around the neck in glee, with the thoughtlessness of one who’d been invited to sleepovers in the Princess’s castle in Canterlot since almost before she could talk.

Princess Celestia flailed a forehoof and flapped awkwardly, but Spy clung on like a limpet, crying out “Princess!”

“It is good to see you again, little one…”

“Make Mom leave me ‘lone! It’s ‘portant!” insisted Northern Spy.

Twilight and Trixie wore matching looks of astonishment, and Applejack turned to Twilight sheepishly. “Uh, we just come out here to see if you could give some advice to our lil’ tearaway?”

“She won’t listen to us,” added Rainbow Dash, “and I can’t always catch her anymore.”

The unicorns’ astonishment doubled. Rainbow Dash blinked at their dumbfounded looks. “What?” she said.

Twilight reeled in her dangling jaw. “First of all, why us? Secondly, how is that possible? And you seem not very bothered by it!”

Applejack visibly sulked, but Dash looked smug and said, “I did this too when I was a kid. Real chip off the old block, this one. We just gotta keep her safe while she gets through this stage, okay? And that means going and looking for someone she might listen to who’s not Mom. And look, look!”

They looked. Princess Celestia was cuddling Spy who still hadn’t let go, cradling the filly in an enclosing foreleg as Spy chattered.

“She says I can’t go out and it’s super important and we gotta fight the monsters and how can we do that if Mom makes me stay home and it’s really not fair and I’m a big girl and make her not say that any more!”

Twilight’s ears laid back. She murmured to Trixie, “She never cuddled me that much!”

“Would you want that,” whispered Trixie, “knowing what you now know?”

Twilight twitched, stricken. “Good point.”

Applejack cleared her throat. “So… on account of our lil’ equine delinquent is too much like her Mom and won’t attend to us no more… Princess Celestia, will you kindly tell this little pony not to bust out of second story windows and run away from us when she’s grounded?”

Celestia boggled. “Good heavens. Second story windows?”

“Yep,” confirmed Dash, with a wicked grin. “And I used to say baby can’t fly.”

“Is this true?” continued the Princess, turning to her clinging filly necklace. Spy, sensing disapproval in Celestia’s horrified tone, dropped to the floor and scowled, chastened.

“It was important!”

“But how?” cried Celestia in dismay. “You’re ephemeral enough without daredeviltry!”

Twilight shot her a glance, and she hastily composed herself. For generations, Princesses hadn’t fussed terribly over the shorter lifespans of little ponies, and Twilight’s look suggested that the presence of the old, calmer Celestia was in order. Other, more intimate discussions would wait.

Northern Spy had lit up with pleasure and pride, and was already answering. “Easy! I just aim for the little hillside. It dips down so I don’t hit so hard. All I gotta do is tuck and roll and not flip too many times or I get dizzy. Then I run really fast and I have to dive into the…” Her eyes bugged out, and she glared at Blue Mom and went stubbornly silent, unwilling to give away her escape routes in Dash’s presence.

Dash’s smirk threatened to leave her face. “Oh, keep going,” she suggested. “Dive into the what? I’m dying to know.”

Fluttershy tsked. “Northern Spy, you should not be running away from your parents! Don’t you want to be a good little pony?”

“Nah,” came the reply. Not from Spy, from Dash. She was still grinning. “So here we are. Thanks for coming along and bringing Rock, Fluttershy. Maybe we can work through him?”

Rock Candy blinked up at the grown-up ponies. His appearance couldn’t be called dignified, for he was wearing his little brother like a hat. Little Dursaa had fluttered his way up into the air again, and landed on top of Rock’s head, nearly toppling him. Finding himself secure, he’d gone for a itty-bitty pony nap, his black-and-white-striped wings folded. He made for a very large hat but as yet a very small little brother.

“It really is important,” said Rock softly.

Two pegasi, two unicorns, an earth pony and an alicorn all blinked in surprise.

Spy nodded proudly at Rock. “It totally is!”

“We should go?” said Rock, looking at Spy.

“Like hell you will,” said Applejack, setting her jaw. “Time you answered to somepony! Rock Candy, I saw you born, you mean to tell me you’re goin’ along with this foofaraw? How you ‘spect you’re gonna get away from this crowd? All we’re lackin’ is the Elements of Harmony!”

Rock blinked innocently at her. “I might not, but the Green Streak can rescue Rock Lobster from any imprisonment, so only one of us needs to get away.”

“Rock what?” said Rainbow Dash.

Applejack moved to block the door, grimly. “Keep talkin’. I reckon you’re gonna stay and hear us out, and that goes double for our girl here. Rainbow? Fluttershy? Cover all them exits. Watch her! Now, Mister Rock, what do you think you’re gonna do?”

“This?” said Rock meekly.

They stared, uncomprehending, for a moment. Then, Fluttershy shrieked at about the same time that little Dursaa fluttered his wings and woke. Rock, with a deadpan expression, was toppling over to the side, carrying his little sleeping brother as he went.

As Fluttershy rushed to catch him, Northern Spy made her break.

She bolted for the Library door, but Applejack blocked it, so she swerved and dodged Rainbow Dash’s swoop, leaving Blue Mom to knock over Trixie and a bookshelf. “Cease!” cried Princess Celestia as Applejack demanded, “Fluttershy! Stare her!”. Fluttershy, catching the tiny flapping colt just as he was about to thump to the ground, replied “No!” and Dash burst from beneath the wreckage of the bookshelf, pulling incredible Gs in the confined space, trying to match the trajectory of her fleeing filly who was using centrifugal force to run right up a wall and, ducking her head and twisting in midair, was about to smash right through a…

Northern Spy slammed directly into a glowing violet field of force.

She dropped, but instead of hitting the ground, found herself flailing at hyperspeed in midair, suspended by a violet glow that had seized her little powderblue tail. She floated, held well clear of any target for her thrashing hooves, over until she hung upside-down in front of her captor.

Twilight Sparkle cleared her throat. “ONE Rainbow Dash smashing through my windows is enough,” she informed Northern Spy.

“Eeeee!” squealed Trixie, delighted. “Twilight with the interception!”

Applejack stampeded over. It was only a few feet, but she managed to stampede in even that short a space. “What do you think ya doin’, Northern Spy? You’re bringin’ shame on our family with them outlaw ways! Apologize!”

Dash blinked. “Whoa! Wait a second. What if it was a double feint? Is Rock…?”

She looked over. Little Dursaa was bouncing happily, making tiny squeaks of excitement at the wonderful show. Rock sat quietly, a look of saintly patience on his face, Fluttershy firmly standing on his tail.

“Apparently not,” said Dash. “Hey, Fluttershy? No Stare, huh, even at a time like this?”

Fluttershy caught Rock’s eye, but found no sign of further shenanigans. She released his tail. “Certainly not. Rock Candy, you are grounded for a week for roughhousing with your little brother. I realize he is a zebrapegasus but that means nothing if he is sleeping, and he might have hurt himself.”

In Twilight’s grip, Northern Spy scowled dreadfully, and trembled with the urge to flee madly in every direction. “You’ll never hold the amazing Rock Lobster!” she raged.

“What does that even mean?” demanded Twilight.

Spy blinked, puzzledly. “Uh… I dunno,” she said, and shrugged. Then, she glowered again, getting back into the spirit of things. “You’ll never get the Rock Lobster to make sense! He’s a genius and the brains of the outfit!”

“I’m afraid part of that is a teeny bit true,” admitted Fluttershy. “Besides the obvious brains part, I mean. He is a very clever boy but it’s true he is odd. But Mommy loves him all the same, isn’t that right Rock?”

“Will Mommy still love him in a lil’ pony jail?” demanded Applejack. “Cos so help me, if this goes on…”

“Stop!” came a commanding voice, and all the bickering ponies did. It was the voice of Princess Celestia, with just a hint of Royal Canterlot Voice, and all heads turned toward hers.

She cleared her throat, and it was Northern Spy, dangling truculently upside down by her tail, whom she addressed.

“Why? Northern Spy, why are you and your little colt friend doing all this? Please be so good as to tell us.” She gave a subdued royal glower. “At once.”

Spy met her gaze, and there might have been sparks flying from the clash of wills, but Princess Celestia had seen many recalcitrant foals in her thousands of years. She didn’t yield, and showed no sign of hurry.

“Tell Twilight Sparkle to put me down and I’ll tell you. But only you,” said Northern Spy.

Twilight bridled. “Princess-only, huh? Little girl, there’s more than one Princess in the house.”

Rock Candy blinked, struck by a stray notion. “The hizzouse?”

“No, it’s her house,” explained Trixie, but the contentious ponies weren’t distracted for even a moment.

“You got no wings!” said Spy scornfully.

It didn’t faze Twilight. “I’ve got your tail. Think again.”

Princess Celestia was undeterred. “Nay, Northern Spy! You must needs admit your secret to all present. Do you know why, little pony?”


Celestia bowed her head solemnly. “It must be a dreadfully big secret. You bear the signs of a pony out on a mission of grave import, facing terror, danger and doom quite fearlessly. You must learn to trust your friends. Including, I fear, parents.”

Applejack snorted, “Aw, COME on…”

“Sh!” hissed Dash, for she saw the look in her kid’s eyes.

Spy considered this. Yes, she thought, she and Rock had to protect all the silly grown-ups and parents. Yes, it would be a terrible thing if some annoying horse like Blue Mom stole all the glory, which she would surely try to do if Spy was any judge. And yet… the big beautiful wise Princess was right. She was calling to Northern Spy’s most ponylike nature, and the call said: how can you deprive other ponies in the herd of a fair chance at glory and excitement? Even, horrifyingly, parents?

“Put her down, Twilight,” urged Celestia. Quickly, she added, “Not on her head!”

Twilight rotated the green filly and placed her decorously on her hooves. Quietly, she murmured “Damn…” to Trixie.

Spy took a deep breath. “We need to go find the monsters that scream. You can come if you want.” She pouted, disappointed to share the laurels, but her pony decency and the wise gaze of the good Princess compelled her to.

The response was in unison. “WHAT monsters that scream?” retorted every adult pony.

Spy’s eyes bugged out. It hadn’t occurred to her that the grownups didn’t know about this. Full of glee that she knew something the big ponies didn’t, she began bouncing in place and squeaking, “The monsters! You know! Rock heard them! We’re getting closer and closer to finding them! It’s super important, let’s go right now!”

This time, Dash caught her by the tail, for her attention wasn’t on evading Blue Mom. She turned and cried, “Come on, Mom, let’s all go get ‘em!”

“Whoa there,” ordered Applejack. Spy, in her new cooperative mood, quit tugging against Dash’s grip and sat, her gaze pleading with all those around her, but Applejack wasn’t done. “Is that what the whole mess was about? Rock heard stuff and you’re haring off to investigate? You’re an Apple pony right enough, but kindly fill us in, short stuff! What do these monsters sound like?”

“I think I heard some too!” squeaked Spy. “Rock heard them and we made up a team of superheroes and we’re gonna save the day!”

“They scream at night,” said Rock quietly. “It’s awful. It sounds like they hurt. They hurt so bad, but there’s something wrong about it, it’s more than just hurt.”

Fluttershy’s eyes shrank to pinpoints. She stared at nothing, and slowly began to blush red.

“What makes these sounds?” demanded Applejack, turning to Rock.

“We don’t know! But it must be something very bad. Sometimes it’s real quiet and sometimes not so much and then quiet again, like it doesn’t want to be heard. But it can’t be a regular thing hurt very bad, because it keeps going on and on and on…”

“Where?” pressed Applejack.

“Mostly out by the Everfree Forest, near Mom’s house. That’s why we have to do something about it before it gets Mom!” pleaded Rock Candy.

Applejack blinked. “You telling me somethin’s ready to attack Fluttershy, and you never told…”

She erfed, and whipped her head around to glare at Dash, who’d poked her butt with a hoof. “Do you mind, Rainbow?”

“Look at her,” hissed Dash urgently.

“Look at who?” said Applejack, and then she followed Dash’s gesture.

Fluttershy was scarlet with embarrassment. Her eyes begged for some kind, any kind of help in changing the subject. And her wings were standing stiffly erect… quivering.

Applejack stared in stupefaction for a moment, then gathered up her jaw and her wits and resumed talking.

“Er, well, all righty then! Dang. Uh… Right grateful to you lil’ scapers for huntin’ down what you might call, um, wild animals…”

Rainbow Dash heroically almost fought off a snigger. Fluttershy thwapped her with a hoof.

“My point being,” continued Applejack, “there’s things you little ones don’t know. Without tellin’ too many tales, I think you’ll find them noises you’re worried about ain’t that bad. In fact, I think I can tell you that all you’re hearin’ is jes’ plain other ponies, doin’ stuff. Um… of which stuff, I ain’t gonna tell you. Exceptin’ that it’s grownup pony business, and don’t you pry, an’ one day maybe you’ll find it ain’t exactly pain of which you’re hearin’…”

“Only if you’re doing it right,” quipped Rainbow Dash, smirking her little blue face off.

“Don’t,” mumbled Fluttershy, scarlet.

“My point being that y’all need to lay off the sleuthin’ and superhero-ing!” declared Applejack. “I promise it ain’t nothin’ but other ponies an’ one day you’ll understand, hopefully a long way off an’ Celestia help us on that day is all I can say…”

“It’s not,” said Rock Candy.


Rock stared at Applejack as she boggled at him. He didn’t blink, or waver. “It’s not. No pony voice can make sounds like that.”

“Wanna bet?” murmured Trixie Lulamoon. Twilight, smirking, cuffed her.

“I promise, hon,” said Applejack. “Ain’t nothin’ but us ponies. Don’t you be afraid.”

“I got a thing from my Mom,” admitted Rock. “It’s pretty weird. It tells me things I don’t understand…”

“Earliest puberty ever,” murmured Trixie, trying not to burst out laughing.

“Trixieee!” wailed Twilight, and cuffed her harder, provoking a fit of giggling that she promptly joined.

“She calls it a Sense,” said Rock, and the grown-up frivolity abruptly stopped. He added, “That’s why I know it’s not a pony. There’s something terrible and wrong, and it’s getting closer.”

Applejack set her jaw. “Now listen here. We’ll go and talk to your mom Pinkie as soon as we can and find out whether she’s Sensing anything. She might be a lil’ weird if she is, but don’t you mind that. Why do you think you’ve got your own Pinkie Sense?”

“He might,” said Fluttershy. She looked worse than before: not just embarrassed, but sick with shame and guilt. There was a peculiar sullenness about her suggesting that whatever was driving her to those noises, she wasn’t ready to give it up.

Applejack glanced sharply at her, and then looked around the room. It seemed clear enough: ponies could be awkward, and then when you got magic ponies it just made things more complicated, and then when ponies got real frisky with each other the complication turned impossible and sometimes downright alarming. They’d all seen the signs. It seemed the more special a pony was, the more harrowing her sex life became, and Fluttershy was unique. She wasn’t even equine anymore. Nothing equine could take the damage Fluttershy had undergone, and live. And indeed, Fluttershy did not live, but it didn’t stop her sulking and blushing and looking stubborn.

They couldn’t talk about everything in front of the kids, but they most likely didn’t need to. Unspoken glances were explaining an awful lot.

“Listen,” said Applejack briskly. “I’mma tell you that Fluttershy ain’t in no danger. Isn’t that right, Fluttershy? I’ll remind us all that she is one tough, ah, pony.”

“I am in no danger,” confirmed Fluttershy, quaveringly.

“Your mother is more powerful than you know, young Rock Candy,” reassured Princess Celestia. “Mayhap we had better not say why? She has saved even my life, and need not fear anything that could come out of the Everfree Forest. She cares for dangerous creatures and they flock to her in love and friendship. Do not fear.”

“Not only that,” continued Applejack firmly, “I can tell you somethin’ else. There won’t be any more scary noises. Understand? Them noises, they’re gonna stop. I promise. Now you gotta stop the carryin’ on. Understand? Stop the carryin’ on!”

Rock and Spy looked uncertain. All the grownups seemed so sure of themselves. Fluttershy hesitated with a stricken look at Applejack, and then reluctantly nodded and said, “There won’t be any more scary noises. They will stop.”

“I found some awesome trails near the Everfree Forest,” said Northern Spy disappointedly. “Can I still follow them?”

Rainbow Dash tousled her foal’s mane. “You know what? We’ll go follow them together. We can be our own little superhero team. How about it?”

Spy’s face broke out in smiles. “Awesome!”

“Can I still be Rock Lobster?” said Rock plainitively. He glanced up at Fluttershy, clearly fretting over her distress.

“Totally!” replied Rainbow Dash. She flew over and hugged him, and then poked Fluttershy. “Hey. Smile! Everything’s gonna be okay.” She leaned over and whispered fervently, “…soundproofing! I’ll help!”

Fluttershy gulped. She hugged Rock as well, and said, “I’m so sorry, Rock. Don’t worry. I would rather not explain what’s been happening, but things will, um, er… it will be very complicated but there won’t be more noises, okay? Almost certainly not, okay? Not for a while. And if there are, pay no attention, dear sweet Rock Candy. Please!”

Applejack glanced at her. “Dang. It’s that good?”

“Shh,” urged Fluttershy.

“Do you have, like, a rental program?” teased Rainbow Dash.

“Dashie!” objected Applejack. “Ah think maybe we best disperse. Sorry for invadin’ your home, Twilight.”

“No problem,” said Twilight. “At least this time I don’t have to replace the window!”

“Perhaps I’ll be going as well,” said Princess Celestia, bowing her stately head in farewell to each dear little pony. Lastly, she leaned down to nuzzle Twilight’s smiling face… and stiffened briefly for no reason any other pony could see.

Twilight’s smile didn’t leave her, but just for a moment her magic had seized Celestia’s lovely ear, and the lavender unicorn had favored her with a whispered message.

“Stop the ‘carryin’ on’!”

“Sorry,” whispered Celestia, her face reddening.

“The real thing is coming,” hissed Twilight, and then turned away, still smiling, to usher her pony friends out.

Celestia hastily took to the air. After a few minutes of flight, she felt composed enough to meditate on the peculiar flavors of vanity, and how they could express themselves. The message she’d been given was essentially unchanged, but clarified. Truly, all unicorns sought by alicorns felt themselves special and chosen, and the call was undeniable. She resolved to not call too loudly, whatever her feelings, because it wasn’t fair to Twilight Sparkle. Better for the lovely unicorn to come of her own accord.

Celestia twitched. She’d have to speak to Swirlie about that. The chaos power had to have some limits. No more improper pretending… even of Twilight as orgasmically-linked triplets. Whatever she did, she would have to be able to admit to.

Applejack trotted into Sweet Apple Acres, well satisfied with the resolution of things. Dash and Spy had zipped ahead, far quicker than she could follow, to go look at some of Spy’s trails as long as they weren’t too near the Everfree. Fluttershy had gone home with Rock, and Applejack hoped she’d behave: that mare (well, vampire, technically) was a real challenge and got awful horny. Of course, she led an exotic life, too. It proper made Applejack wonder what it was like with a…

She reared and whinnied with alarm at the sudden, striped, huge shape that moved out of the corner of the room.

“Oh, older, wiser Apple mare, I didn’t plan for you to scare!”

“Land… sakes! Mister Dursaa, now I recognize you!” said Applejack. “What on earth brings you here this time of day?”

“Applejack, you know my wife: to Fluttershy I’ve pledged my life. She’s borne my foal, she brings my joy, and nothing shall that love destroy, save trouble I cannot avert, which does my psyche disconcert…”

Applejack boggled. “The hell you talkin’ about, Dursaa? Stop talkin’ fancy!”

He gulped, gathered his wits, and proceeded to talk fancier and plainer at the same time—and Applejack’s eyes widened in comprehension.

“I’ve come to you because I needed wisdom and advice. Why does she want our sex to hurt when I want to be nice?”

Applejack took off her hat.

“Dang, honey,” she said, weakly.

Somewhere, deep in the Everfree Forest, something moved.

It didn’t move very well. There was no chance of that. But it moved all the same, dragging itself along.

It paused, exhausted, for a time unable to drag itself further.

Faintly, a ghastly and tormented wail rose out of the darkness.

Silence resumed. Then, even weaker scrabbling noises.

It continued. How could it not?

Darkness… deepened.